Highlighting: “The House of Faith and Fashion: What My Wardrobe Taught Me About G-d” by Tobi Rubenstein. Citadelle Publishing. 2021. English. Paperback. 232 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0578876290.
Some years ago, at the start of summer, my husband, Zev, ordered a seersucker suit that only arrived at the beginning of September. That year, Erev Rosh Hashanah was to fall out at the conclusion of Labor Day, (as it will, beH, this year) and he wanted to wear it for Yom Tov. I decided to call Brooks Brothers with my shaiyla – was it “permissible” to wear it after Labor Day? I reached a senior sales supervisor in the store and posed my question. His response to me was a classic one. “Madam, today they are no rules.”
This story came back to mind when I read the extraordinary new book by Tobi Rubinstein, “The House of Faith and Fashion: What My Wardrobe Taught Me About G-d.” Tobi has been successfully and deeply engaged in the world of fashion for over 40 years and in this both entertaining and moving book, weaves in her experiences with the “rules” of fashion as she experienced it with her Jewish life and worldview. Tobi is no ordinary fashionista. She grew up in Kew Garden Hills and was a Bais Yaakov girl. Her father was a much-beloved figure in the community who was a plumber renowned for both his skill and integrity.
In a series of essays in this book, Tobi shares with the reader the trajectory her life took from her Bais Yaakov days to her delightful encounter with rap legend Fifty Cent, as well as her interactions with some of the leading fashion lights including Iris Aptel, Motty Reif, Keren Wolf and Patricia Fields. Yet what makes this book so unique is how she describes that along this incredible professional path that led her to experience so much professional success, the interweaving of her emunah, her love of Hashem and the continual impact of our mesorah on her. Tobi describes reasons that could have made her bitter—for example, after her parent’s divorce, when she was a teenager, her mother left without even a personal goodbye. And yet, Tobi writes movingly of forgiving her mother while at the same time finding new maternal role models. Ironically, it was a former mother-in-law, Donna Schneier, whom she describes as her Mama Donna, and continues to be like a mother to her and she, like a daughter to Donna. With Shavuot almost upon us, how timely is her description of their relationship echoing what we read about Ruth and Naomi. It is so common to hear misogynist jokes about mothers-in-law, and here, we see a model that will bring tears to one’s eyes.
Tobi has incredible artistic taste, whether for clothing, Shabbat place settings or an eye for detail in the places she visited. She describes the summer scene in the days when Grossingers and the Concord attracted both singles and families and with it, fashion “shows” the likes of which we rarely see anymore. From the white summer day wear that was inaugurated with Shavuos, to the incredible evening outfits, Tobi’s literary descriptions take us back to a time when there still were fashion rules and with them, beauty, style and flair. But along with her fashion memories, she shares the ongoing impact of her faith and those who nourish it. It is no wonder that her book has approbations from world-renowned Breslov thinker and speaker Gedale Fenster, Chief Rabbi of Moscow Pinchas Goldschmidt, Rav Doniel Katz, Yaackov Klein and Rabbi Shalom Arush.
Tobi and I first met almost 22 years ago when one of my daughters and her daughter began kindergarten together. Over the many years of our friendship, I have seen how success has never gone to her head and how she has remained one of the most level-headed people I know. Amidst all her talents, she has also served as a rebbetzin and continues to draw upon a level of bitachon and Yirat Shamayim, especially now as she perseveres against a disease, which Baruch Hashem, is receding daily. How can others learn from her? She shared with me a very humorous answer: “I’m not a realist, I’m a faithist that’s got great clothes.”
Tobi is one of a kind and it shines through in this wonderful book. Reading it will get you out of both your COVID PJs and any spiritual funk you may be in. It will lead you, instead, to re-embrace not only the joy of dressing up, but once again finding one’s spiritual footing filled with love of Hashem, God’s Torah and Avodat Hashem. “The House of Faith and Fashion” is available on Amazon (Kindle edition), Barnes and Noble and Tobi’s website:
Rabbanit Adena Berkowitz, a practicing therapist, is scholar-in-residence at Kol HaNeshamah NYC and senior educator at the Manhattan Jewish Experience. She is the author of the best-selling “Jewish Journey Haggadah” and co-author, together with Rivka Hait, z”l, of “Shaarei Simcha—Gates of Joy,” a mini siddur, the first liturgical work written in the modern era by Orthodox women. She lives in New York with her husband, Rabbi Zev Brenner, and children. She can be reached at [email protected].